On-board for the long haul: Sustaining employee engagement over time

Findings show that for the average employee, engagement tends to decrease with length of service. Lauren Keith explores why this is – and what can be done about it.

Many of us will have experienced the feeling: You start a new job filled with excitement and anticipation. You spend a few months learning the ropes, making new connections and proving yourself worthy of your position. Perhaps a year or so in, you get that well deserved pay rise or promotion. You’re feeling pretty accomplished.

But a few years down the line and you’ve become a little stagnant, your motivation a little low and your creativity a little dry. Perhaps you’ve reached a glass ceiling in your department. Your organisation may even have restructured or rebranded and it’s no longer what you signed up for those years before. Everything seems to be moving on except you. After a while feeling in the dark, you hand in your notice.

If this resonates, the company you have in mind probably had an employee engagement issue.

The engagement problem

The ‘engaged employee’ has been the subject of much dispute and redefinition. For the sake of simplicity, we can look to the original definition by Gallup as one ‘those who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace’. Unfortunately, whilst many organisations like to think they tick this box, research consistently shows this is not the case and a study earlier this year found less than one-third of employees are actually engaged at work.

This reality is affecting staff turnover and productivity – it’s not going to be possible to tackle the advanced economies’ productivity issue – especially UK’s – without tackling engagement too. At best, disengaged employees are less likely to go that extra mile. At worst, they are more likely to abandon ship.

Our opening example encapsulates a big problem for all types of organisations – that is, research shows engagement for any given employee usually decreases after their first few years of service. So the big question is, how do we keep staff on-board for the long haul?

1. Keep your employees on board with change

Research suggests engagement is dependent on employees feeling aligned with the brand and understanding the bigger picture in their day to day job. But we know that to remain competitive, organisations may need to reinvigorate their brand as the years go by. Some organisations may also go through natural peaks and troughs of activity and focus which require periodic management and restructuring. An established, loyal employee may start to feel detached from the organisation they originally chose to join if they feel it no longer reflects those same values, or they may feel frustrated that the culture and ethos they spent years attuning to is no longer the company gospel.

A Weber Shandwick survey found that just 21% of employees who have recently gone through change at work feel their employers value their ideas and opinions. But in today’s developed economies, change is a constant. Is it any wonder there’s a global engagement problem.

What’s the solution? In a recent post on the HBR website, Sarah Clayton explains how during a period of workplace change, organisations need to provide safe spaces for employees to process what’s happening – to air concerns and have a voice. This might be facilitated by in-person interactions, but also via social media platforms (55% of respondents in this study who had gone through a change event at work said they wished their employer offered more digital and social engagement).

Moreover, a social media platform for discussing workplace issues can shorten the distance between employees and senior management, and helps drive transparent dialogue which allows leaders to paint a clear vision of the future – and bring everyone with them. It’s about flattening the organisation and developing a sense of inclusion for all.

2. Give opportunities for career development

Evidence shows a correlation with disengagement and lack of seniority and pay. A more junior employee may feel frustrated by their lack of responsibility, influence or recognition, particularly as time goes on. This issue highlights the intrinsic link between engagement and the Learning and Development (L&D) function. If organisations can nurture successful employees by providing training opportunities and a supportive learning culture, employees will become more engaged and drive the success of the company in return.

But how do you nurture success? This leads us onto the next point…

3. Facilitate continuous, personalised learner journeys

IES research has found that employees who have a personal development plan, and who have received a formal performance appraisal within the past year, have significantly higher engagement levels than those who have not.

An active professional development program, tailored to the individual’s own needs and preferences doesn’t just boost productivity and performance at the individual level – it’s a signal to employees that their training needs and skills profile matters to the organisation. This reassurance, as well as the positive feedback they receive as part of the process, could help sustain ‘affective engagement’ ¬ feeling positively about how we do our jobs – and ‘intellectual engagement’ – thinking hard about the job and how they might do it better.

Providing personal targets also enhances motivation as employees can think realistically about what they want to achieve and how to get there, rather than feeling overwhelmed by unattainable goals or unchallenged by those that feel repetitive and uninspiring.

But it’s not just about the one year review. If we want employees to stay switched on all year round, we have to be energising all year round. There should be continuous dialogue between leaders and employees and an active feedback loop.

One way of doing both is through next gen learning technologies, like tessello, which facilitates continuous learning and dialogue through structured learning pathways that set out what each individual learner needs to explore and accomplish.

4. Keep management engaged

Without employee by-in, you might have a mutiny but equally, without a focused captain you’re not going to set sail in the first place. In other words, we need to ensure that management are staying engaged with the organisation themselves in order to engage their teams.

Findings show that for a given employee, the attitude and actions of their immediate supervisor and believing in the ability of senior leadership are essential in driving engagement. According to this study, engaged employees are also more likely to trust their managers and know them as people. Management need to be approachable, aware of what’s going on in the organisation and supportive to their teams. We should ensure they are encouraged and rewarded for these behaviours.

Also, we should give them freedom to assume a leadership role and treat them as assets by regularly asking their opinion on business decisions. But most of all, remember that points 1-3 also apply to management. They are the key to unlocking engagement business-wide.

It’s clear that engagement revolves around many social, emotional and personal factors. But mostly, the engagement issues organisations face are to do with continuity, communication, and customisation – the flexibility to work in new ways, but also to find the skills and support networks to manage the change productively and engage employees throughout that shared journey.

We need employees to continuously feel valued and supported, speak their mind, be empowered with information, and driven to learn and develop themselves. That goes for managers and junior employees alike: a holistic approach to engagement which holds up consistently through the ups and downs of living and working in today’s complex organisations.

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